It is apparent that contrary to his claims some two years ago, President Peter Mutharika actually reads the country’s newspapers, or at least follows what they publish. This is why he does not miss any chance to respond to trending reportage whenever he has the opportunity to address the public.
And his recent statements seem to debunk my suggestion two weeks ago that he does not care about public perception. There are strong indications that he does care, after all. Otherwise he would not be commenting on even the most mundane of criticisms of his rule. That is a positive development, in my view.
One of the things that the President has reacted to recently is the finding in a survey conducted by Chancellor College’s Department of Politics and Administrative Studies that only 40 percent of Malawians trust him. It is an interesting coincidence that I mentioned in my last two entries that, barring some epic drama, around 60 percent of the voters are likely to vote for other candidates in the next general election.
That is never good news to any politician. No politician wants to hear that they are not popular. What differs is how different politicians react to such findings. Publicly, Mutharika has reacted like all his predecessors who were subjected to similarly uncomplimentary survey results. He has dismissed the findings as lies, even suggesting that the researchers were talking to flies.
What was queer perhaps is his claim that he is the most popular leader in the country. Queer on two fronts. First, unlike the University of Malawi academicians, he did not cite his authority or indeed the basis for this outlandish claim. One would have expected him to provide counter-findings from another survey conducted among human beings, not flies.
In the absence of alternative findings from another survey, his claim lacks credibility. If, as the President advised his audience, one should ignore findings of a survey whose methodology was clearly spelt out by its researchers, it is anybody’s guess what one should do with rhetorical claims by a concerned party.
Secondly, the popularity in question is among Malawians, the very people he was addressing. Is it for him to tell them that he is the most popular among them? Should it not be coming from them, or indeed some independent player? I may feel that someone loves me, but I don’t think it is up to me to tell them. They know better and even if they so claim, they may not be saying the truth. In that case, therefore, such a claim sounds desperate.
Of course, I understand the President. He cannot come out and accept that he is not doing well in the popularity race. It does not do his political fortunes any favours. He needs to do something about it, I am just not sure dismissing the survey results in the manner he did is the best way. It may come out as arrogant and that may only make a bad situation even worse.
For his own sake, I hope Mutharika does not sincerely believe what he told the Mangochi rally over the weekend. I hope what he said was only for the public ear. That he is privately taking the findings seriously and is working towards turning things around. I also hope those who surround him are able to tell him the truth – assuming they know it – and not what they think will please the master.
The timing of these findings could not have been better for the President and his team. There is another two years ahead of us before Malawians go to the polls and something can be done to make Mutharika the most popular leader he thinks he already is. Malawians have proven in the past to be open to a change of heart if there is enough reason to do so.
And Mutharika does not need to look very far. His departed brother came last in the 1999 general elections, beaten by the likes of Bishop Nkhumbwe and Kamlepo Kalua. He also only managed to scrape through despite massive backing of the state machinery in 2004. Just one speech, followed up by a few bold decisions and actions on the ground enabled him to become a darling.
Does this Mutharika have the single mindedness of the other Mutharika? Does he have a clear conviction of what he wants to do and the resolve to do it? Does he know the opportunities he can exploit for his own benefit? These are the questions he must be answering honestly within the confines of Kamuzu Palace despite whatever he says in public.
Unless he does an honest analysis of the University of Malawi survey findings and come up with a clear strategy of turning public opinion around, he will have a rude awakening when the day of reckoning comes. As I said, he might still win the next election, but there is always a battered ego when you win an election while aware that the majority of the electorate preferred someone else.
And he will do well to stay clear of petty and unnecessary fights like the one he picked with Balaka North parliamentarian Lucius Banda. I have not done any survey, but I would not dismiss any suggestion that the President would struggle to beat the musician-cum-politician in a popularity contest. I am not saying Banda is presidential material, but I know people who are more prepared to listen to him than they would other more eminent politicians.
Truth be told, the DPP knows no alternative to bare-knuckled fights, but i would like to believe that abrasive methods do not always cut it. You need to mix it up. He was speaking in Mangochi where people are as confused about the DPP-UDF relationship as Banda is. By calling the MP misguided, where does that leave those who think like him? Is that the way you win people over? I doubt it.
The long and short of it is that is President Mutharika dreams of ever becoming the country’s most popular leader he has his work cut out.